Reacting to stress : fight, freeze or flight

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Reacting to stress : fight, freeze or flight

Reading time : 5 min

Living in a context of intimate partner violence or post-separation violence is extremely stressful. Victim-survivors and their children are literally living on a tightrope, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

I feel extremely tense, all the time... and when something happens, when I feel his dark eyes on me and anticipate the worst, sometimes I freeze... literally. My mind goes blank, words get stuck in my throat, I can hardly move... I feel completely powerless.

Survivor, 32 years old

Fight, Freeze or Flight

When a person is faced with a violent situation (actual or anticipated), defence mechanisms are activated in response to the intensity of the stress. Three types of reactions can occur: fight, freeze and flight.

It is most important never to judge these reactions to stress, since they all have the same purpose : self-preservation. However, each of these coping strategies can both promote and hinder one's safety, depending on the context.

When the fight response is activated, one can feel a sense of urgency and feel propelled to decisions or actions. It is a prompt and motivated reaction. Its advantage: it gives energy, grit and strength for action. Its risk for safety : it can be difficult to stop and assess the situation when you feel such a strong motivation to act. It can also promote reactive violence on the part of the victim-survivor, which becomes a risk to their safety when the abuser increases the intensity of their own violence to maintain power over the situation.

When the freeze response is activated, one may feel frozen or paralyzed, internally or physically. The freeze reaction is rooted in the consideration of danger. Its advantage: it promotes caution and safety in the immediate future. Its risk to safety: it can push the person into helplessness and prevent them from taking certain actions that could promote their safety in the long term.

When the flight response is activated, one may feel detached from the situation, unable to think or talk about it, or cut off from their emotions. The person may escape the pain through denial, work, drugs or alcohol, or by the careful planning of daily life and absolute self-control, in order to avoid violence as much as possible. The flight response is rooted in the need to protect oneself from suffering. It can be very present when one has to endure long periods of violence, as is often the case in intimate partner violence or post-separation violence. Its advantage: it provides an emotional shield, by cutting off some of the emotions related to the violence (fear, anger, outrage, pain...). It allows the victim to avoid, to resist and to survive. Its risk for safety: by cutting off emotions, it can hinder the ability of the victim to assess the risks they are facing.


Avoiding judgement by understanding

It is important to know that a victim-survivor doesn’t choose the type of reaction that is triggered by stress, and that their reactions are normal, no matter what. Also, a person may react one way at one time, and another way during another episode of violence. Recognizing these stress reactions for what they are, protection/defense mechanisms, helps us to better understand the person and can also help with safety planning.

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Bien que la violence conjugale touche majoritairement des femmes, elle peut aussi toucher les hommes et les personnes issues de la diversité sexuelle et de genre. Les services de SOS violence conjugale sont offerts à toutes les personnes touchées par la problématique.

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